6 Rockstars with Impeccable Production Resumes

Traditionally, the role of producer is thought of as being separate from that of the performer. But while this of course is often true, it is not always the case.

Throughout the history of music, there have been a number of popular musicians who have moonlighted as producers, and quite successfully so. From Allen Toussaint to Trent Reznor, many famous musicians have made just as much, if not more, of an impact as the producers of other artists’ music than as producers of their own.

Producing is often a very musical and hands-on experience. Producers can even end up being the foremost musician on the record, even if they’re not always credited as such in the liner notes or during the release’s promotional tour.

While there are many different philosophical ideas around what a producer should and shouldn’t do, it is often an authoritative position that shapes and shifts the direction of a project (as Nile Rodgers did with David Bowie’s Let’s Dance).

In the spirit of celebrating these musical multitaskers—those who can not only command a stage but can lead a recording session as well—we’ve decided to compile this list of outstanding "rockstar" producers.

David Bowie

One of the most iconic stars on this list, David Bowie is of course remembered as a prolific recording and performing artist of the highest order, but by many fans, he’s also heralded as a producer. Besides producing or co-producing most of his own albums, starting with Hunky Dory, Bowie produced albums for some of the most important musicians in the history of rock music.

Bowie’s most lasting production works came out of the 1970s, beginning with his co-production of Lou Reed’s 1972 breakout solo album Transformer. Bowie’s production relationship with Iggy Pop began with 1973’s Raw Power by the Stooges, which Bowie famously remixed after Pop had originally mixed all the instruments into one side of the stereo channel and the vocals on the other.

While no one can argue with the results, Bowie did describe the Raw Power sessions as "the most absurd situation I’ve ever encountered." Absurdity aside, Bowie would happily go on to produce a number of Pop’s solo albums, including 1977’s The Idiot, another indisputably classic album.

Of their friendship and musical partnership, Pop recalled, "He resurrected me. … He was more of a benefactor than a friend in a way most people think of friendship. He went a bit out of his way to bestow some good karma on me."

Dr. Dre

While the broader music public may recognize Dr. Dre most for his rapping or his prolific beatmaking prowess, fewer realize how exceptional his role as a traditional producer has been.

Having been a producer since his time in N.W.A. in the mid-’80s (with whom he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame), Dr. Dre actually got his start as a producer even earlier, with the less-famous World Class Wreckin’ Cru. Transitioning to a rougher sound, Dr. Dre would help create the backbone, body, and blood of the "G-Funk" sound.

After finding his sonic touch, Dr. Dre would achieve massive success as a producer at Death Row Records, forge a partnership with Interscope, and found Aftermath Entertainment.

But in addition to his command of a mixing board, Dre also has a knack for discovering artists and helping them find their voice, with his most notable proteges ultimately being Snoop Dogg and Eminem. Dre fostered these artists from the underground to mega-stardom, and helped produce some of the most influential debut albums in modern music history, including Doggystyle by Snoop Dogg and The Slim Shady LP by Eminem, as well as some of the most memorable singles of that era.

In short, he combined his ear with another crucial producer’s talent—recognizing untapped greatness. As Dr. Dre recalled of discovering Snoop Dogg, "The first time I heard Snoop, a friend of mine had a bachelor party. I’d met Snoop before that—he was selling drugs—and my stepbrother Warren G pops this tape in. I’m like ‘That’s Snoop? I’m like, man this is a fucking diamond in the rough and we need to polish it up!’" The rest, they say, is history.

Todd Rundgren

It’s hard to touch on spectacular performer-producers and not eventually land on Todd Rundgren. Aside from being an unforgettable solo musician in his own right, Rundgren produced more legendary albums and artists than many listeners likely realize.

Rundgren’s career in production began for the same reason so many musicians before and after him decide to take on the role—he was unhappy with how other people produced his music. At the end of ‘60s, he started to learn the art of recording and music production and quickly found a job with heavyweight rock manager Albert Grossman.

By the early ‘70s, Rundgren was not only producing his own solo albums to great acclaim, including the landmark 1972 effort Something/Anything?. Simultaneously to his own career, Rundgren began steadily producing other artists albums, including Grand Funk Railroad, Patti Smith, and, most famously, the 1973 self-titled debut of the New York Dolls.

Over the years, much has been made of these sessions and alleged clashes between Dolls’ guitarist Johnny Thunders and Rundgren. The band has found these reported clashes to be overblown in reality with any difference in approach centering on Rundgren’s musicality and stricter, straight-laced work ethic contrasting with the Dolls’ street-influenced approach to music and creation.

Rundgren also took a huge chance on someone that no record label wanted to touch in the late ‘70s—Meat Loaf. Producing Bat Out of Hell out of his own pocket (after Meat Loaf may or may not have misled him on having a record label), Rundgren heard potential in what industry titans like Clive Davis turned down. Though Rundgren later said he signed on mainly because he thought it was a spoof of Bruce Springsteen, he ended up helming the board for one of the highest-selling albums of all time.

Prince

Outside of maybe David Bowie, there is no bigger name on this list than Prince. There is also not a musician-producer here who produced more music in his life or that had a more hands-on role not just in their own creations but in the musicians they cultivated.

A remarkably skilled multi-instrumentalist since childhood, Prince would go on to produce his own groundbreaking discography as well as an entire stable of artists in the ‘80s and ‘90s, usually under the pseudonym "The Starr ★ Company" or "Jamie Starr" to obscure his involvement.

Out of all of his collaborations, perhaps the most memorable in Prince fandom was his working relationship with Sheila E. While Prince was Sheila E.’s co-collaborator in the Starr Company and an amazingly talented musician—having previously played with George Duke and Herbie Hancock—Prince, for all intents and purposes, was the producer for Sheila E.’s 80s output.

On these albums, Prince played most of the instruments, though other musicians were often credited instead.

Sheila remembers of the time, "We were in the studio every single day, just hanging out and playing, and he was writing music for other people and I’d help him. The Glamorous Life was done in a week—we’d stay up until five and six in the morning recording, go home for a couple of hours, come back and start playing again. Next thing you know, seven days later, the record’s done. That's how to do a record."

As any transcendentally-talented producer can do, Prince didn’t just help craft the musical product in terms of arrangement, songwriting, and sonics—he also helped develop artists into products, including Sheila E.

In fact, it was at Prince’s encouragement that Sheila E., a renowned percussionist and backup singer, became a lead vocalist and decided to record her 1984 debut album The Glamorous Life.

More than that, it was Prince who urged her to shorten her name from Sheila Escovedo to the Sheila E. With the transformation complete, the pair would record three Sheila E. solo albums in the ‘80s—The Glamorous Life, Romance 1600, and Sheila E.—helping further cement both Sheila and Prince as signature artists and creators of the decade.

Missy Elliott

Missy Elliott is probably the most unsung musician-producer on this list, however influential her work as a performing artist has been.

While most people know Missy Elliott for her own classic hits and unforgettably insane ‘90s music videos, Elliott played a huge role in pop music production in the ‘90s and ‘00s, having had an intensely close working relationship with Timbaland that lasted decades and spurred some of the biggest successes of the era.

Throughout their time working together, Timbaland and Missy Elliott co-wrote and produced for a number of now legendary artists. The actual list of artists that Elliott wrote and produced for is surprisingly long, but just to name a few of them: Destiny’s Child, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Aaliyah, Mary J. Blige, and Beyoncé. Did I mention it’s a very, very long and impressive list?

Remarking on her lack of recognition as a producer, "A lot of people don't know a lot of records that I've written or produced, so that's a highlight for me as a woman. … I always said if a man would have done half the records that I've done we would know about it. But we don't know all the records I've done for other artists."

Dan Auerbach

In terms of modern rock, blues, and soul music, there are few musician-producers out there currently more studious and purposeful with his work currently than Dan Auerbach—who is most famously the guitarist/vocalist of The Black Keys.

The funny thing about Dan’s inclusion is that both Patrick Carney and Dan are musician-producers in their own right. Pat is actually credited as the sole producer of the Keys’ first two albums, The Big Come Up, and Thickfreakness—with Dan joining on as a co-producer starting with 2004’s Rubber Factory.

Since upgrading from their famed Tascam 388, Dan Auerbach has in recent years set up shop in Nashville with his own recording studio, Easy Eye Sound Studio. There, he’s been producing his own solo records as well as albums for a who’s-who of artists from the past and present, including The Pretenders, Lana Del Rey, and Shannon and the Clams.

Perhaps Dan’s most artistically successful collaborations came from his production work on the 2012 Dr. John comeback record, Lockdown. The thing that comes through in a lot of Dan’s work and words is the respect for the artists he collaborates with and the projects he’s been undertaking.

Speaking of his time recording with Dr. John, "Mac inspired me every single day we were in the studio together—musically, spiritually, cosmically. … Something special seemed to be happening and everyone involved could sense it. For my money, Mac’s one of the greatest who ever was and who ever will be. … I’m so honored to have had this opportunity to work with him."


About the Author: Casey Hopkins is a Brooklyn-based writer and songwriter/guitarist for The Advertisers. Aside from writing for Reverb and pursuing music, Casey is a recovering guitar salesman, assembler, and history major. Follow @CaseyHopkinsGuitar on Instagram to keep up with him.

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